Emotions for Hire: The Role of “Emotional Labor” in the Workplace

Want help with your hiring? It's easy. Enter your information below, and we'll quickly reach out to discuss your hiring needs.

“Ironically, those employed in assembly-line manufacturing jobs like these, which are generally regarded as the most regimented, have an enviable freedom that most white-collar professionals do not: the freedom of emotional non-expression…”

When you place staff, your obligation is, of course, to ensure that they can do the job and perform as well as, or better than expected. But are you supposed to also make sure the placed candidates will emotionally perform as expected—when “perform” means not only completing all required mental, logistical and physical tasks, but also either working to elicit an emotional clientele response or (appear to be) expressing emotions through a behavioral performance?

When obligatory, such “emotional labor” is in many respects not so different from the ceaselessly effusive performances that are expected from upscale haute-cuisine waiters and the dignified geniality that is mandatory for five-star hotel front-desk staff.

Emotional Labor

Emotional Labor | Michael Moffa

Best understood as behavioral displays of genuine, artificially induced or faked emotions or personal traits in order to further the goals of an enterprise,  “emotional labor” is a term coined by University of California, Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild.

As a mature researcher, Hochschild characterized emotional labor as “the effort to seem to feel and to try to actually feel the ‘right’ feeling for the job, and to try to induce the ‘right’ feeling in certain others”. However, it also designates something that she, even as a child, sensed in her exposure to the behavior of elite guests at parties hosted by her diplomat parents:

As she writes in the preface to her book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling

“I found myself passing a dish of peanuts among many guests and looking up at their smiles; diplomatic smiles can look different when seen from below than when seen straight on. Afterwards I would listen to my mother and father interpret various gestures. The tight smile of the Bulgarian emissary, the averted glance of the Chinese consul . . . I learned, conveyed messages not simply from person to person but from Sofia to Washington, from Peking to Paris, and from Paris to Washington. Had I passed the peanuts to a person, I wondered, or to an actor? Where did the person end and the act begin? Just how is a person related to an act?” (Quoted from the preface of Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, and excerpted at the above-mentioned link.)

Enviable Freedom

In pre-industrial and industrial jobs, “labor” was and is primarily physical. No acting required, save for looking busy and efficient, which can be accomplished without any emotional display.  Whether squinting sunburned 19th-century buffalo hunters, Chinese railway workers laying track across America or rows of deft Brooklyn sweatshop seamstresses whistled or smiled while they worked mattered little, if at all.

Even now, the modern Chinese or American assembly-line worker is not required to feel much of anything except the need to get the job done, to do it right and to get paid for it. As for eliciting anything from the boss, the paycheck will suffice—praise, like water cooler paper cups and a cute coworker’s phone number to write on one, is nice, but not necessary and is to be won exclusively through physical and intellectual, not emotional, labor.

Ironically, those employed in assembly-line manufacturing jobs like these, which are generally regarded as the most regimented, have an enviable freedom that most white-collar professionals do not: the freedom of emotional non-expression.

Unlike so many service-sector employees and non-hermit professionals, manufacturing workers do not have job descriptions that require them to wish anyone a nice day, paste a non-stop Ronald McDonald smile on their faces, maintain a cheerful and supportive demeanor, wrap themselves in a mantle of professional gravitas, gush effusively the way a waiter must when the wine selected is a fine 1967 Chardonnay, or adopt a severe tone of voice of the sort required when threatening repossession, bill collection or litigation.

It should be noted, however, that not all service-sector workers are required to perform emotional labor—for example, the self-employed plumber who will mercilessly scold you while scrunched under your bathroom drain plugged with hair. In his case, the emotions are entirely voluntary and free—in both relevant senses of “free”.

On the other hand, in organizations that depend on repeat business or donations, that have close supervision, serve upscale or emotionally vulnerable clientele, provide pricey services or seek substantial contributions, and/or face stiff competition are virtually certain to require and not merely recommend emotional labor.

Apart from the production focus of such emotional-labor-free jobs, there is another factor that creates an exemption from mandatory or recommended emotional display and elicitation in the assembly-line workplace: being very busy. Empirical evidence and common sense suggest that on both a fast-moving manufacturing assembly line and in some high-volume, heavy-traffic businesses, no emotional performance of any kind is required or expected.

The line between emotional labor and other work tasks is not always clear.  The white-gloved, impeccably groomed iconic female greeters stationed at Japanese department store escalators, identically repeating “O-hiyo gozaimasu!” (“Good morning!”) to each and every of the hundreds of customers passing them blur the line between simple formalized courtesy and emotional labor. This line, like so many of the contours of Japanese culture, is only vaguely drawn.

The Emotional-Labor Extremes

On the other hand, the least ambiguous, most extreme form of emotional labor I am familiar with is also Japanese: In 1992, a Tokyo-based company, Japan Efficiency Corp, did a brisk business renting out a fake family for weekend visits to lonely elderly people. For example, one ensemble of paid actors, comprising a couple and a type-cast “grandchild” were hired to pay “Grandma” a familial house call, for which Grandma had to fork over more than $1,000 for three hours. (I suppose a real plus for the client was the possibility that she could enjoy the fake gratitude of the fake family by leaving them everything in a fake will, while making real donations to her favorite charities.)

More recently, another Tokyo company, called “Office Agents” has been renting out exuberant professional wedding guests for those with few friends and relatives (willing to show up).

The Chinese have been equally adept at hiring emotions: The wailing white-robed professional female mourners I heard and then saw in a back-lane procession in Qingdao, China in 2009 provided similar, albeit less festive, emotional-labor services.

Existential Freedom

Not forced to express or elicit emotions, the blue-collar non-service worker and the cave-dwelling hermit—unlike virtually every modern professional who must work with people, rather than with things, ideas or information—can avoid the existential pitfall of what Jean-Paul Sartre, the best-known existentialist writer and philosopher of the 20th-century, described as “Bad Faith”, which represents a mature expression of at least part of Hochschild’s childhood intuition.

In simplest terms, Bad Faith is a denial, a waiver, a forfeiture and evasion of choice, authenticity, freedom and existential responsibility that is most vividly revealed in personal interactions.

The following oft-quoted passage from Sartre’s opus magnum, Being and Nothingness, crisply conveys the concept of Bad Faith, a form of self-deception and the Self-negation of personal freedom, through which authentic “being” is replaced with reflex pretense and staged false role-playing. The excerpt also reveals an intimate connection with emotional labor:

“Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step a little too quick .. his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer .. he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things .. ” (Being and Nothingness, 1943)

Despite its exotic, dark and deep psychological and philosophical implications, the Bad Faith that facilitates much emotional labor is itself commonplace, transparent and, Sartre’s observations suggest, metaphysically shallow.

I cannot pay for a meal without being told by my effusively smiling server that my decision to pay by debit card rather than cash was “awesome” or “perfect”—as though I had accepted and exercised the profound kind of existential freedom, choice and responsibility that (s)he endlessly evades for the duration of every meal served. This is something most of us have experienced. Sartre and Hochschild tell us why.

The Non-Philosophical Costs of Emotional Labor

While existentialist philosophers have focused on the ethical and metaphysical costs of emotional labor when it is also Bad Faith, sociologists, medical researchers and psychologists have examined the lifestyle and professional costs and risks associated with emotional labor per se. Here are some of the most important findings among abstracts at Pubmed.com, an authoritative U.S. government archive of peer-reviewed medical research:

  • “Though many employers do not acknowledge the existence of emotional labor, it is a real occupational hazard that may generate life-altering effects on physical and emotional health.” (In New Solutions: a Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy,  2008;18(2):245-55: Reference Link
  • “Results revealed that the emotional labor strategy of surface acting led to increases in subsequent strain, while deep acting led to increases in job performance” (A  Department of Work and Social Psychology 2010 study, Maastricht University, Maastricht, the Netherlands: Reference Link. The key finding here is that while consciously faking emotions imposes a psychological strain, “getting into” the role, as an Oscar-winning actor would, enhances work performance, without a similar stress cost.
  • “Results suggest that higher levels of emotional labor demands are associated with lower wage rates for jobs low in cognitive demands and with higher wage rates for jobs high in cognitive demands.” In other words, higher and lower intellectual demands and higher and lower pay, respectively, correlate with higher levels of required emotional labor. (A Department of Human Resources and Industrial Relations, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota 2004 study: Reference Link
  • “To prevent emotional exhaustion of teachers, the development of interventions to promote health-beneficial emotional labor is necessary. This can be achieved by fostering deep acting, which reduces emotional exhaustion over longer periods of time.”(A Department for Work and Organisational Psychology, Albert Ludwigs University Freiburg 2010 study: Reference Link
  • “Nearly 90% of the HCPs examined change their true feelings in the course of work. It is very difficult to classify those threatened by the negative upshot of this emotional labor. Due to our research we found appalling differences of work motivation that were tightly interconnected with the respondents’ emotional labor and their perceived role/emotional expectations.” Here, “HCP” designates the 50 volunteer oncology “Health Care Providers” surveyed in this study. (A 2008 study at Debrecen University Medical Healthcare Center: Reference Link
  • “We urge physicians first to recognize that their work has an element of emotional labor and, second, to consciously practice deep and surface acting to empathize with their patients.” (A 2005 study by the Group Health Cooperative, Center for Health Studies, University of Washington, Seattle, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Reference Link
  • “With a survey study of 196 employees from the United States and France, the authors supported that high job autonomy buffered the relationship of emotion regulation with emotional exhaustion and, to a lesser extent, job dissatisfaction. The relationship of emotion regulation with job dissatisfaction also depended on the emotional culture; the relationship was weaker for French customer-contact employees who were proposed to have more personal control over expressions than U.S. employees. (A Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University 2005 study, in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (5), 893-904: Reference Link

“Collar-Blind” Bad Faith and Emotional Labor

Bad Faith and emotional labor are “collar-blind”—They attract or are forced upon white-collar Wall Street brokers who take stock orders as well as entangling waiters who take steak orders. The prescribed friendly bank managerial handshake, the equally palpable fever-pitched staged enthusiasm of a hedge-fund broker, the studied suspicion of an IRS auditor and even the cautious encouragement from a recruiter are forms of “emotional labor”, even if the performance involves only prescribed traits, such as “dependability”, “optimism” or “diligence” that are designed to elicit emotions, rather than express any.

When you, or any other professional, are required or otherwise tacitly nudged to express or elicit emotions such as delight (yours or a client’s) or “customer satisfaction”, that professional behavior is emotional labor, irrespective of whether that performance comes from the heart or is staged for effect.

The more extreme idea that a physician’s tears for a patient saved or lost represent emotional labor is untenable, unless the radical position is taken that anything that happens when money is exchanged for work, including any emotional displays, is a dollar-denominated, labor-based phenomenon.

If an emotional display while on the job is “authentic” and in keeping with one’s true values, beliefs and feelings, Sartre’s critique does not apply, in virtue of the choice having been made without occupational coercion and without existential role play. Still, some may say that such authentic emotions constitute emotional labor to the extent that their display furthers the business of the business in interactions with clientele.

The Ideal Emotional Laborer

Such a spontaneous emotional laborer is the dream candidate for service-sector recruiters and clients alike, since the latter know that in business interactions, real, authentic feelings are more credible, motivating and satisfying for all concerned.

Hence, other things being equal, the people-friendly, upbeat sociable candidate or the aggressive beat-em-up “enforcer” is likely to be seen as an ideal service-sector candidate, because positive interpersonal emotional interaction presupposes a disposition to enjoying interacting with, while negative tasks feed off genuine negative emotional energy directed toward “the enemy”.

Hence, the emotional-labor interactions do not always have to be “positive” touch-feely sorts: a behemoth bar bouncer will perform well within his required emotional-labor range by growling at the trouble-maker he just tossed out the door and onto the pavement—likewise for the relentlessly badgering bill collector. Negative task, negative emotion: a perfect match. The ultimate test of the emotional-labor performance is whether it serves the organization or business mission and interests, not how good it makes everybody feel.

Of course, this is not to discount the hybrid job that requires positive supportive emotions for what are inherently unpleasant task interactions with other people, such as the work of morticians and personnel managers, who, in their respective ways and at appointed times…

… have to oversee seeing someone go.


Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).